Grass finishing lambs in Colorado winter

by Richard Parry

IGNACIO, Colorado: When some one tells you it cannot be done you can either give in to the nay-sayers or make up your mind to find a way. Based on my experience I recommend the latter choice. If you had asked me three years ago if I could produce grass-finished lamb year-around here in southwest Colorado I would have said, “No. Grass finished lamb has to be a seasonal product here.”

When we started our grass fed lamb direct marketing business we were planning to continue lambing in the spring and then market the grass fed lambs in the late fall, just before the snow came. This seemed the logical low cost, modeled after nature approach that we had been committed to following.

As we became meat marketers, we learned that stores and restaurants do not close their doors in the winter; in fact, here in snow country the opposite is true.

Colorado mountain ski towns like Durango and Telluride boom in the winter and they will pay a premium for high quality gourmet meats.

In New Zealand's South Island, we saw that every sheep farmer set aside one third of his paddocks for farming winter grazing crops. They planted annual cereal crops for finishing lambs and brassicas for wintering ewes.

Yes, the Kiwis were farming their way through the South Island winter. This would take a paradigm shift for me because of my aversion to the "f" word (farming).

In Argentina we saw the same concept of farming to produce pasture developed into highly skilled "forage-sequencing" to fit any season of the year. The Argentine forage-sequencing system has resulted in quality grass finished beef being available every month of the year.

Despite our desire to become winter grazers, a severe drought in the southwest put our plans on hold for two years. I knew that I would need a reliable supply of late summer, early fall moisture to get the cereal crops started.

In our case that would have been irrigation water that had been in short supply late in the season. In 2004 we finally had a normal supply of irrigation water, it was time to start "farming for pasture.”

First, the selected paddocks were soil tested by Kinsey Agriculture Services. Then we applied generous amounts of gypsum and phosphate with small amounts of selected trace elements. We then seeded two large paddocks to cereal rye the first of August at a 120 pound per acre rate that was deemed appropriate for fertile, irrigated land.

After seeding we started the irrigation equipment and the rains soon followed. A third large paddock was no-till seeded the first of September.

The August seeded paddocks have turned out spectacular. The cereal rye grew to a height of about 8 inches and was extremely thick. One paddock was grazed off the first of October when a few seedheads began to appear.

We knew that it had to be kept vegetative and not allowed to produce seed heads. We wondered, had we planted it too early?

An extended rainy period followed, so the sheep were removed from the cereal rye paddocks. We watched in amazement as the grazed paddock came growing back like gangbusters in the cold, short days of October and November. Apparently, the August planting had produced strong root systems.

By December you could not tell the grazed paddocks from the un-grazed ones. The seedheads had proven to be a false alarm, as the un-grazed paddocks never produced more that a few seedheads during the fall. The September seeded paddock has proven to be a disappointment. I do not know if the limiting factor was the September planting date or the no-till farming approach.

Regardless, because of our farm's new certified organic status, the no-till approach will not be an option in the future.

Our grass fed lambs were turned into the cereal rye the first day of January. They had been on stockpiled cool-season grasses during the fall and early winter.

Stockpiled cool-season grasses are great for wintering a cow or ewe, good maintenance feed, but if you think that you can grass finish an animal on it, you are kidding yourself.

The cereal rye paddocks were still as green and vegetative in January as they had been in October. The larger paddocks are now subdivided for strip grazing in order to keep waste to a minimum. Best of all, the lambs are doing great. Gains have been a respectable .33 pounds per lamb per day in January and February, which are our coldest months of the year. Cold weather diverts more of your feed resources to animal maintenance and less to weight gain.

The lambs are brought in to a nearby scale on a weekly basis where they are topped off for slaughter.

In retrospect, perhaps the lambs should have been started on the cereal rye the first of December because I believe that gains were not at their full potential on the late fall stockpiled pasture. Several paddocks of annual rye grass would have been good for late fall grazing and would kick in again for early spring grazing.

Whatever source of farmed pasture you choose, proper planning must be given to the overriding principal for grass finishing, "keep the animals at a high rate of gain."

In the future we will target worn out paddocks in need of renovation. They will receive Kinsey soil tests and subsequent treatments for proper soil and nutrient balance.

We will first chisel plow the paddocks to open up the irrigation hardpan followed by roto-tilling to destroy the old sod. After one or two years in annual crops they will be seeded back to improved grasses and legumes.

Each year we will move on to the next targeted paddocks eventually covering the whole grazing cell while we take both our soils and our pastures to higher levels of quality grazing and production.

This makes me a heretic to my 18 years of low cost, low input, modeled after nature training, but you just cannot consistently produce quality grass fed meats under that school of thought.

(Richard Parry is a grass farmer direct marketing grass fed, organic lamb in Ignacio, Colorado.)

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